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20 january 2018

For the past 15 years, Reaktion Books has produced marvelous short studies of animals and foodstuffs. I have reviewed nearly all of them here. Rebecca Stott's Oyster is one of the very best of the Animal series, but till now there was no corresponding Edible title. Carolyn Tillie's global history of the shellfish as food fills that gap, and complements Stott's classic nicely.

Tillie devotes some attention to oysters in the arts, and some to the natural history of the oyster, but not as much as Stott. In turn, Tillie looks more closely at oyster cultivation, the oyster trade, and the oyster foodways that built and sustained whole civilizations. Tillie suggests that oysters were a crucial food source for ancient cultures, right back to the dawn of Homo sapiens. I have wondered before whether the impression that ancient humans lived mainly on oysters isn't mainly artifactual. If they'd lived on slugs we'd know nothing about it, but oyster shells have a way of persisting in the landscape.

Yet oysters have surely been important. Much of Oyster is dedicated to extremes: millions of tons harvested, millions of young oysters set into beds to grow, millions of shellfish shucked and sucked down, millions of shells discarded. Hyperbole gets the better of Tillie at one point, when she discusses middens – piles of shells discarded over generations – "as large as 640km (400 mi.) in length and 6km (4 mi.) high in New South Wales and southern Queensland" (63-64). Six kilometers is a good-sized Himalaya, and more than twice the highest point in Australia. I get an image of Sherpas lugging crates of oyster-shells up into the æther after every meal. I suspect that "meters" instead of "km" are meant. A shell heap six meters high and 640 meters long is still a phenomenal pile.

Several world cities, notably New York, are built to a significant extent on oyster shells. Though many old middens have been harvested for their calcium, those that remain visible, or lie buried under city streets, testify to the prodigious appetite for oysters. For a creature with the consistency and durability of snot, the oyster proves surprisingly amenable to processing and transportation. Like herring, shucked oysters can be smoked, pickled or tinned. Unlike herring, unshucked ones can be packed wet and cold into barrels, and shipped long distances happily alive and unconscious of their prospective fate.

Oysters can also be rendered into the great Chinese condiment, oyster sauce. Unlike lobster sauce, a sauce for lobster that you can put on other things (much as steak sauce contains no steak) oyster sauce is mostly oysters, concentrated to extreme heartiness. Use it advisedly, but use it liberally, in Chinese dishes.

Tillie concludes her book with some oyster recipes, including Hangtown Fry from San Francisco and Oysters Rockefeller, from anywhere and everywhere. The latter involves roasting oysters with some sort of greens (standing for the money of the Rockefellers?). The former involves frying breaded oysters and then scrambling some eggs around them. Appended are some excellent instructions on keeping, cleaning, and cooking oysters in general.

I won't be trying these recipes, because I have no good source for oysters. Restaurants have served raw oysters since the dawn of the railroad. Well before, if you were a Roman emperor at an inland villa, you could sample shellfish packed in Alpine snow). But dependable fresh oysters as far inland as Dallas these days are not to be had at bearable retail prices. And I don't think that the gloppy things we sometimes find shucked and tubbed from the supermarket would stand up to the Hangtown Fry treatment.

Oysters, I think, are something you should enjoy locally and opportunistically, when you are in an oyster area. Overfishing to feed huge packing industries destroyed the natural geography of the oyster, but humans have recreated that geography (often with recourse to oyster "seed" from halfway around the world). Go some place where they're recreating it and get a dozen on the half shell.

Tillie, Carolyn. Oyster: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2017.